16 December 2004

Redemption and Politics

I have been hearing a lot about William Kristol's essay yesterday in the Washington Post concerning Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Kristol's unhappiness with Rumsfeld has not been a secret; he accuses the Secretary of, among other things, preferring to pursue his own agenda for military reform over either Iraqi realities or the President's own global strategy. The public attack in the Post may be an example of the growing skepticism and hostility that may now be very much part of Rumsfeld's working environment.

Something else attracted my attention in Kristol's essay. Ending his piece with an example of soldiers who deserve a better defense secretary, Kristol writes:
In Sunday's New York Times, John F. Burns quoted from the weekly letter to the families of his troops by Lt. Col. Mark A. Smith, an Indiana state trooper who now commands the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, stationed just south of Baghdad:

"Ask yourself, how in a land of extremes, during times of insanity, constantly barraged by violence, and living in conditions comparable to the stone ages, your marines can maintain their positive attitude, their high spirit, and their abundance of compassion?" Col. Smith's answer: "They defend a nation unique in all of history: One of principle, not personality; one of the rule of law, not landed gentry; one where rights matter, not privilege or religion or color or creed. . . . They are United States Marines, representing all that is best in soldierly virtues."
Mark Smith's words are not glib chauvinism. Even if I do not literally believe them in every detail (I can cite a number of countries who fit that "unique" description), its motivational power is undeniable. As Christians are inspired by the Resurrection and by the radical ethics of Jesus, the American patriot is inspired by the ideals summarized by the Colonel. An American is, at least mythically, someone who expects his or her country to give the space necessary to thrive without limitations imposed by social accident or political caprice. Even though the real USA (not the mythical one) has betrayed this ideal over and over, with direct correlation to the victim's lack of social similarity to the actual founders, nevertheless the ideal has such power that every generation takes its turn to reduce the occasions of betrayal.

Freedom is at the center of this myth. When I lectured in Russia earlier this fall on American exceptionalism, I cited this passage from Thomas Paine: "O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her--Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind." Of course it is ironic that many Americans are hoping that their family was the last one to be welcomed into the American asylum; future seekers of freedom are looked at with suspicion, fear, or outright racism. The point is: America's sense of specialness is nothing new, and is very much alive and well today.

Yet another essay came my way this past week. One of my colleagues sent me Dan P. McAdams's article, "Redemption and American Politics," from the December 3 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. (It's in the subscriber-only archive$ now.) Explaining the Bush electoral victory that confounded so much of the higher educational establishment that had expected sanity to be restored on November 2, McAdams says, "Put simply, the Republicans are better storytellers."

You guessed it. The story they tell is closely tied in with Mark Smith and Thomas Paine, the story of how the archetypal American inhabits freedom. It's the story of how he or she overcomes odds, self-generated or imposed from without, and triumphs.

McAdams explains, "... The Republican Party has groomed candidates and honed messages that resonate deeply with a story of life that Americans hold dear. It is the narrative of redemption -- a story about an innocent protagonist in a dangerous world who sticks to simple principles and overcomes suffering and hardship in the end. This is a story that many productive and caring American adults -- Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- love to tell about their own lives. Republicans, however, have found ways of talking about public life and political issues that reinforce this story. And to the extent that politics is personal, many Americans may vote their story, rather than their pocketbook."

He documents his assertion about people's stories from his own work as a research psychologist, studying individual narratives. He also knows American history: "Visiting the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans 'have an immensely high opinion of themselves and are not far from believing that they form a species apart from the rest of the human race.' Tocqueville realized that the Americans' sense of special destiny lay partly in their celebration of the individual self." This individual self is, ideally, judged solely by achievement, not by their background nor even by the ragged route they might have taken. Bush was not a great success as a businessman -- far from it -- but then neither was another president from the other end of the USA's rather narrow political spectrum, Harry S Truman. After watching one business venture after another dry up, Truman could be excused for some of his more self-doubting letters to Bess, but when he got to the White House, he demonstrated a bit of the same visceral delight with his new job that we can sometimes see in Bush.

It does no good to point out that Bush had a social safety net around him that Truman didn't have. You can't compare hardships. Our redemption might be a triumph over alcohol, or over a risky political apprenticeship under a corrupt mentor; all that matters is that we are seen as moving forward with strength and purpose.

One of the most fascinating laboratories of human relationships in my own experience was Earlham School of Religion, the Friends seminary in Richmond, Indiana, USA. It fascinated me (and sometimes frustrated me) to see how liberals and evangelicals got on each others' nerves. Looking back on those experiences, it's tempting to line them up with today's Democrats and Republicans, but the issues were certainly not always ideological or theological. Those who came to the seminary to explore their own internal spiritual landscapes, who came from a fundamentally skeptical attitude toward truth claims, irritated (and were irritated by) those who came with a strong faith and saw the school as a place to move forward with their personal goals -- to get more adequately prepared for a life of service in pursuing and proclaiming that faith.

I remembered those experiences when I read these paragraphs toward the end of McAdams's article:
George W. Bush's personal story follows closely the script of the redemptive self. Born with a special blessing, he came close to squandering it all before he gave up alcohol, found the Lord, and rededicated his life to public service. It is a powerful recovery narrative, starring the kind of guileless protagonist that many Americans love.

In this kind of story, moral clarity trumps worldly sophistication (and debating skills). His detractors may call him stupid, simple-minded, and stubborn. But many voters see Bush as sincere and well meaning. They like that he does not seem to obsess over the complexities of the world. They find assurance in his commitment to simple principles. And even those who are not born-again Christians may admire his recovery story. We are all sinners, after all. Yet in the eyes of many people, Bush really seems to have redeemed his sinful past. For the past 10 years or so, he has kept his eyes on the prize. He has remained steadfast, unwavering. He has lived out a destiny to which he feels he has been called.

More important than the president's own story, however, is the way in which optimistic (if sometimes simplistic) Republican messages about "values," faith-based initiatives, individual freedom and responsibility, and the "ownership society" reinforce a grand narrative about a good and innocent protagonist who takes charge of his own life, stays focused through adversity, and ultimately triumphs in the end.

The heroes in this story are the small-business owners, the entrepreneurs, the soldiers, the preachers, and the un-self-conscious individualists who, like Emerson, trust the good and simple "man" over the ambiguous and complex "town." The enemies are ambiguous and complex collectives of various kinds -- "big government," for example, bureaucracies, the United Nations, and programs and policies that potentially compromise the innocent strivings of the good inner self.
Those of us who get "ambiguous and complex" at times, who are fond of pointing out contradictions, may protest that Republican behavior and Republican story are two different things. "It does not matter much that Republicans have actually grown the government (to say nothing of the deficit) rather than shrunk it," says McAdams, or "that they also advocate certain kinds of government programs and policies. It does not matter because politics is as much about stories as it is about anything else. Republicans are masters at simplifying the world into upbeat narratives about good protagonists who will find redemption in the end. By reducing taxes, empowering faith, and assuring national security, they promise to clear away the many obstacles and complexities that clutter up the world and stand in the path of the redemptive hero's quest."

I will be eager to see Dan McAdams's forthcoming Oxford U. Press book, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By. Maybe somewhere in all those narratives will be one or two from people who combine a strong moral compass with a passion for justice, an insatiable intellectual curiosity, and the ability to define freedom from a wider, more crosscultural perspective than seems within the capacity of the Marlboro Man. We need those people! Perhaps Thomas Paine, standing on the threshold of the American experiment, could dare to, and afford to, look around the rest of the world with disdain. For Americans to do so now as individuals is to be in a mythical bubble that permits confidence at the expense of wisdom. To do so collectively will betray our origins as a "city on a hill," a catalyst for creativity and freedom worldwide. We risk becoming a source of poisonous arrogance in the world, a grotesque distortion of our founding ideals from which the rest of the world (knowing that "due process" doesn't even go as far as Guantanamo Bay) must increasingly protect itself.

Important Trivia Department

Norwegian State Broadcasting (NRK) tells us that their Saturday Children's Hour radio program is the oldest radio program still on the air. They're celebrating its eightieth anniversary all this month. The first broadcast was sent from Oslo on December 20, 1924. [Update: the program's last broadcast took place on September 11, 2010.] The story reminded me of many magic childhood hours at the massive old radio next to my grandfather's chair in Oslo, listening to the music and announcers on NRK radio as they switched from one city to another. "Over til Bergen." Norway was spared television until around 1960.

Nowadays NRK TV is ultra-slick, but I remember when they filled the time between programs by aiming the camera at an aquarium.

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